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"Combat Zone
Ultimate fighters test mettle in steel cage"

He has baby blue eyes and Opie Taylor freckles.

He lives with his mom and grandma, and he blushes with pride when he describes his 3-year-old daughter, Emmalie.

But throw 24-year-old Nathan Marquardt, bare-chested and barefooted into a steel cage with another man and this wholesome boy-next-door from Broomfield shows no mercy.

"I don't think I'd want my daughter to see me fight live," he concedes shyly, as he describes the burgeoning, but controversial sport he has risen to the top in. "It can be bloody."

Under dim lights, before a sweaty, heckling crowd of roughly 3,500 fans at the Pepsi Center last weekend, Marquardt and some of the nation's most accomplished ultimate fighters put on a show of at-times stomach churning brutality:

"Get up! Your mama's watching," a spectator jeers, as a fighter lies writhing and holding his groin, his opponent hovering over him.

Buxom, bikini-clad girls circle the chain-link octagonal steel cage, offering a diversion as the downed young man is examined. But anxious men and women stand and crane their necks to look past them, at the bloodied fighter.

"Give me a break, faker!" protests one, as the injured fighter is hauled out of the cage, and the fight is called a "no contest" due to an illegal kick to the groin. Backstage, some speculate it's a ruptured testicle, an injury not unheard of in the sport.

Fan Anthony Rodriquez, 33, sneaks out for a smoke before the next round and offers two obvious newcomers to the world of ultimate fighting a half-joking warning:

"Don't get up too close, you might get blood on you."

A decade after Mayor Wellington Webb banned the nearly-anything-goes brawls from city-owned venues, the sport of ultimate fighting is -- thanks to new rules and a cleaner image -- enjoying a Renaissance. The long demonized sport, which combines wrestling, boxing, and martial arts in match-ups often likened to backyard brawls, is now among the most popular Pay Per View events. Ultimate fighting video games are topping the charts. Local fight promoters are seeing their crowds grow larger. And clean-cut, hard-training professional fighters like Marquardt and Boulder's Amanda Buckner are raking in anywhere from $1,500 to $20,000 per fight and working hard to legitimize their sport in the public eye.

"When it first started off, the only rules were, you couldn't bite or eye gouge" says Marquardt, who started his fighting career when he was a fairly puny 16-year-old at Wheatridge High School. Today, he's among the top three fighters in the world, traveling frequently to Japan (where the sport is huge), and gaining respect as a local coach. Aside from the fire breathing dragon tattoo hidden beneath his shirt sleeve, he belies the public stereotype of ultimate fighters as violent punks hungry for a good, dirty brawl.

He trains no less than six hours a day in kickboxing, wrestling, sparring and martial arts and, outside the ring, avoids scuffles at all cost. He says his fellow fighters are a lot like him.

"The sport has completely changed since it first came to the states," he says. "All the guys in it now are serious athletes."

After hours of backstage prepping, having his hands meticulously wrapped, stretching, and psychologically bracing himself, Marquardt -- the 13th fighter of the night -- enters the arena under a cloud of smoke and the glare of blue strobe lights.

"The thoroughbred known as Nathan Marquardt," the announcer bellows.

But before many in the audience have even tuned into the action inside the ring, Marquardt has leveled one swift kick to his opponent, Steve Gomm's head, sending him to the ground with a thud. In an instant, Marquardt is on top of him, delivering crushing blows to Gomm's skull with his hands and forearms. The blood flows, smearing Marquardt's massive shoulder, and the fight is over in less than 2 minutes.

Victorious, he grabs the microphone: "I'd like to thank you all for coming," he says graciously, "and take a moment to thank my sponsors."

A brutal history

Also known as mixed martial arts, ultimate fighting dates back to the ancient Greek Olympic games in Athens, where opponents fought naked to exhaustion in a bloody contest called pankration. It become popular again in the 1920s in Brazil, where there were no time limits and fights went on for hours. Since the 1980s it has been one of the most popular spectator sports in Japan.

Local fight promoters say their sport has been cleaned up substantially since its rocky U.S. debut in Denver in 1993, when it was billed as "no holds barred fighting," and "the most barbaric show in history." Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell became so repulsed by what he saw, he sent letters to lawmakers in other states urging them not to permit the events. For years it was virtually banned nationwide, kept alive only by a grassroots following connected through the Internet, says Sven 'Boogie' Bean, a Denver promoter who now hosts about four ultimate fights per year, drawing 2,000 to 3,000 spectators.

"It is slowly becoming more of a sport and less of a spectacle," says Bean.

Today, there are weight classes and time limits (no more 400 pound guys facing off against 180 pound guys). Kicking in the groin and head butting are now illegal, and the sport is officially sanctioned by the Colorado State Boxing Commission. It is often held in a steel cage, partly for the shock value, but also because it is safer, fighters say -- they can't be kicked out of the ring onto the ground. Bouts are five minutes long, but typically end sooner, either with a knock-out, a referee or a doctor calling the fight, or one opponent "tapping out" -- a.k.a. begging for mercy. Fighters point out that there has been just one death in the sport, in 1998 in the former Soviet Union, in the past 80 years.

Melody Murphy, owner of Boulder's Way of the Crane martial arts studio and Street Wize self-defense program, is not impressed.

She says martial arts is not about violence, or entertainment, but rather, about self-control. She refuses to even put an ultimate fighting flyer in her window.

"It is violence and brutality and it has absolutely nothing to do with the martial arts," she says. "It is about the worst kind of human behavior we can exhibit and call entertainment."

"We might as well be throwing the Christians to the lions."

Cleaner, but still mean

Its new rules and image aside, ultimate fighting is still unquestionably violent.

Marquardt has shattered his own hand against an opponent's skull, fractured his own nose twice, broken numerous opponents' arms, and "torn a lot of guys ankles and elbows and shoulders," with one of the sport's most brutal moves -- an "armbar" which bends a limb back until you can literally hear the tendons ripping.

The worst injury he's inflicted?

"I kneed him really hard when he was trying to take me down and he stopped breathing for a while," Marquardt says, a twinge of regret in his voice. "He didn't fight for a year ... but he's fine now."

He stresses that mental game is as important as physical prowess.

"You really have to think about what you are doing out there," says Marquardt. "It's not just brute force."

But what does grandma think?

"Grandma doesn't say much about it," Marquardt says. "Mom is scared. Dad loves it."

'Cat fight'

While some women may cringe at the sport, Amanda Buckner, a 5-foot-3 powerhouse with a black buzz cut and tattoo-covered calf, isn't fazed by the its perceived brutality.

An articulate, college educated 28-year-old who got turned on to ultimate fighting two years ago when she sat in on a class at Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Boulder, she is now a rising star in the small but growing sorority of female ultimate fighters. She and her boyfriend, fighter Jay Jack, recently moved from Boulder to Portland to open their own mixed martial arts studio.

They returned to Colorado Saturday for her sixth professional fight, which she won in 2 minutes, 45 seconds with an ankle lock that left her opponent begging for mercy. After the match, the two returned to the center of the ring, and embraced.

"You have so much respect for the person getting in there with you, you develop a really interesting bond with them," Buckner says. "It is not a barbaric street fight. It is the ultimate challenge to not only be able to have all these skills but to be able to put them together and use them." Paul Rust, 54, of Colorado Springs, agrees. Clad in suit and tie, the distinguished looking mechanical engineer sat near the front at the recent Pepsi Center fight, his arm around his equally well dressed girlfriend (a nurse who would not give her name).

"It's just so primal," Rust said. "It's a big adrenaline rush to watch."

For more on local ultimate fighting, log on to www.rof-mma.com.

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